Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 19, 2015 5:00 pm 
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Crossing boundaries

We are in Montreal in winter. Moving back and forth between two families, Giroux's film, cowritten with frequent collaborator Alexandre Laferrière, at first seems painfully stiff, dark and lifeless, and it tends to move too slowly. Sara Mishara's camerawork is nonetheless sometimes handsome, and the darkness is at least partly intentional, because the focus is on two unhappy people who share a feeling of being constricted. Meira (Hadas Yaron) is an Orthodox Jewish wife with a small child, subject to all the rituals and rules, the imposed focus on child-bearing, the archaic dress and hair styles, the speaking of Yiddish. She loves her child, but she's a rebel, and would like to listen to a record of soul music once in a while, playing Wendy Reine's "After Laughter (Comes Tears)" on the sly when her husband Shulem (a touching Luzer Twersky) goes out. He is bothered and brusque, but shields her from ridicule for her perceived eccentricities. Félix (Martin Dubreuil), an aimless French Canadian, has recently returned to his father (Benoît Girard) and sister (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) for his father's death. His father is rich, but Félix is not interested in the wealth, which his sister now controls. He is staying on the edge of the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood (the same way the non-Jewish director encountered this community), which is how he "meets" Meira in a Jewish food shop where he goes for coffee one morning.

Before long she is secretly meeting him. They're in some ways curiously alike. Both like to draw. Both are also essentially spoiled children, with an air of melancholy. Meira's people's houses seem big, old, and posh too, if not as big and posh as Félix's father's. (Félix is Jewish too, but only his father's wine that he drinks is Kosher.) Her, "Can I come in and listen to music?" is like a child's "Can I come and play?" The way this moment awakens Meira and Félix decisively to each other is given the eccentric objective correlative of the vintage Sixties movie clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s train-station performance of "Didn’t It Rain." Gioroux uses music sparingly but effectively, giving Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" a key moment later on, and there's a gondolier singing in Venice.

Félix is living in one place, but he also takes Meira to the grand family house, and there is a curiously memorable scene in which they blithely play ping pong in a big room of that house, with a playful, fun conversation about nothing much. Then Félix's sister comes in with her boyfriend, and Meira flees, feeling betrayed; he had said he was "alone."

When Meira's husband realizes she's up to something, and has also been trying not to get pregnant, he sends her off to his cousins in Brooklyn. Big mistake. Félix comes and stays at a hotel. They take the Staten Island Ferry. He puts her in tight jeans, they go to Times Square. They dance. He takes off her wig and strokes her hair, the most intimate moment in this sexless film. (She has turned out to speak French quite well, by the way.) Hadas Yaron, who came to notice as the star of Rana Burshtein's Orthodox wedding film Fill the Void (NYFF 2012), is a radiant beauty, so when Meira comes out of her shell, it's a real blooming, and a delicate, spontaneous-seeming one.

The beauty of the film iteslf is the tentative but risky and emotionally fraught coming together of the two people in its early part. It's a romance, for sure, though if and when it's ever consummated isn't clear. In his Variety review Peter Debruge sees Yaron as having what Woody Allen saw in Mariel Hemingway while making Manhattan -- the air of "a young woman ripe and ready for experience, temporarily held back by her own naivete." As Félix, Dubreuil is vigorous and real but unappealing and lacking star quality. It's Yaron who makes this beautiful and subtle if somewhat wan little film interesting and curiously touching. She does seem to have (as Debruge says) an "intuitive identification" with her character. It's through her that the film's depiction of the meeting of mutually strange worlds comes to life.

Once the couple is tracked down in a secret tryst in Brooklyn by Shulem, an operation carefully engineered by the family no doubt, things come to a head. But where can things go? Giroux's original, crabwise approach to his story, successful earlier, fails in the film's last segments. Back in Montreal Félix momentarily resorts to an elaborate Hasidic drag of fake beard, sidecurls, hat and long coat. It's a silly episode, leading only to embarrassment and illustrating Debruge's initial observation that Dubreuil "reads as a sad clown." His character is useless and aimless, his only strength his lawlessness and here, willingness to violate another culture's rules.

Debruge is right (and not alone) in saying that the ending of the film is weak and full of miscalculations. But I can't see the last sequence as he does as a "lapse into schmaltz." It's too melancholy and uncertain to be that. Mike D'Angelo thinks that the late meeting between Shulem and Félix shows Shulem as sensitive, and he feels the final arrangements make this, like Burshtein's film, a kind of apology for Orthodox Judaism as not, after all, a prison for women. Be that as it may, this film would seem lifeless and merely odd without Yaron's radiance.

The filmmaker is not an insider, or a Jew, and it's an interesting question if not one I can answer about how this film fits into the small but growing filmography of Orthodox Judaism. The Hasidic aspect of Félix and Meira is light compared to the atmosphere-thick, even stifling Fill the Void; Haim Tabakman's stunning and grim Orthodox gay romance Eye's Wide Open; or Kevin Asch's bold Hasidic drug dealer thriller with Jesse Eisenberg in sidecurls, Holy Rollers. I haven't seen Giroux's other films, nor what Boyd van Hoeij in his Hollywood Reporter review calls "The gold standard for film featuring extramarital affairs in ultra-religious Jewish communities, Amos Gitai’s Kadosh."

Félix and Meira, 105 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2014, when it was named Best Canadian Feature; many other international festivals followed. The Canadian theatrical release was 30 January 2015 and French release was 4 Feb., with very good reviews (AlloCiné 4.6); but only the mainstream French critics reviewed it. US release began 17 April 2015. Current Metacritic rating 64%. This grade is brought down by Kyle Smith's pungent view in the NY Post, "Tender, heartfelt and exquisitely dull, the drama Félix and Meira illustrates the perils of trying to tell an emotional love story with meaningful stares and long pauses." In theaters 1 May 2015.

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